The Blog of John Hewitt

Creating a believable world

By Sharon Caseburg

One of the greatest difficulties Speculative Fiction authors experience when writing stories in this genre is in their ability to provide a believable environment for their readers.

Any kind of speculative fiction, whether it be hard-core Science Fiction, Time Travel, Horror, or Fantasy requires readers to put aside the conventions they have become accustomed to in the “real world” for the world the author presents in the story. This of course holds true for speculative romance stories as well. For the most part, readers of these genres are more than willing to put aside the customs of the world they live in, for the environment the author has created. However, when the author does not provide a believable realm, readers can easily become disenchanted with both the author’s world and in turn, the story itself.

Basically, this translates to the more the author knows about the world he or she is creating, the more confidently the author can write about it. If it is obvious to readers that the author fully believes in this alternative world, then, more than likely, readers will follow.

So how can the author successfully prepare for the creation of an alternative environment?

The answer may sound easier than it really is: work out ALL the details of your story before submitting your final draft to a publisher.

Although this point may seem obvious, it is more difficult to perform than it sounds. No New World can successfully come into being without the author first performing proper research. Whatever you do, don’t entirely make up your New World as you write your story! Map out everything you can possibly think of before you write about your realm. This activity will help make the actual writing about the environment much easier and will prevent any glaring inconstancies, the bane of any speculative fiction reader, from occurring.

One easy way to get started on creating a believable environment for your story is to pick up a reference book on world building from your local library or check the Internet for good sources of information. Use a variety of search engines when doing your research on the Internet. This will give you the widest pool to draw from. Be thorough in your background exercise and consider questions about your realm that may never come to figure in your story. You would be surprised at how knowing details that do not figure prominently or at all in your story can enrich your story-telling technique and help you in creating a lush and vibrant landscape for your readers.

Here are a few things to consider about the world you are creating. Answering as many of the following questions as you can will help you shape a strong, believable world; a realm you will be confident in writing about; a world that your readers can believe in. As well, don’t limit yourself to this list. When you get down to it, there are thousands of other details you can consider; however the following list can help you get started:

  • Is the New World predominantly like the one we currently live in? Is it different? How is it different?
  • What is the environment like on your New World? Is the air quality good? Is the air polluted? Is there an Ozone layer? Do civilizations live in protected environments? How are these environments constructed? How are these environments controlled?
  • Is there water on your world?
  • How does the sun rise? How does it set? In fact, is there a sun?
  • What are the life-sustaining factors of your world?
  • What is the nature of your society? For example, is it predominantly agrarian or is it technological? Is it modeled after a real civilization that once lived on this earth? If it is, research everything you can about that civilization. It will help you decide what is similar and what is different. If the world is technological, to what degree?
  • Is your world contemporary, futuristic or alternatively historical? If it is futuristic, is it far-futuristic or near-futuristic.
  • What year does your story take place in?
  • What calendar does your civilization observe? In fact does it even observe a calendar?
  • What seasons exist in the realm?
  • What is the plant life like in your realm? In fact is there any plant life?
  • What is the style of clothing worn?
  • What currencies are used?
  • What mode of transportation is used? If you are inventing one, how does it function? Is it petrol powered? Solar powered? Powered by another source? Describe the source in detail.
  • Does the military exist in your world? How is the military structured?
  • What is the hierarchy in the elected officials of the realm? Are there elected officials in the realm? Is it a monarchy? A democracy? Do elders exist in the community? What role do they play? Is there a hierarchy that is adhered to with these individuals?
  • If you are inventing new races of life forms, be prepared to make detailed notes about their societies as well.
  • How do people communicate with each other? Is communication verbal?
  • Are there computers on the world? Are they the same as here?
  • Do people read and write?
  • Does telepathy exist?
  • What is the same in the New World as in this world?
  • What is different?
  • How do people celebrate?
  • How do people grieve?
  • How are the young in society treated?
  • How are the elderly in society treated?
  • What is the average life span of your characters?
  • What is the diet on your New World?
  • And anything and everything else you can think of about your New World.

Remember that you are the creator of your New World. And you are all-powerful. While you may choose not to answer every question on this list, or perhaps you will create new questions to consider, knowing as much as possible about your New World will result in a more believable environment for your readers. The more intimately you yourself know your new environment, the more deftly you can convey its intricacies, even the unseen ones, to your audience.
Sharon Caseburg’s work has appeared in Visions and Voices, The Writing Parent, Freefall, Backwater Review and forthcoming in Pottersfield Portfolio.

How to Choose a Major and Minor for a Career in Writing

Choosing a college major can be difficult for anyone, but it is especially difficult for people who want to write for a living. In many ways, your choices are between art and commerce. The more a degree focuses on literary pursuits, the less likely it is to lead to a job straight out of college.  The more a major focuses on job skills, the less fulfilling it can be for creative people.

In many cases, the best choice is to pick a career-based major and a more creative minor, or to pick a creative major, but find a minor that will help your job prospects. When choosing that way, you have options beyond what is listed here. For example, a major in creative writing might be well complemented by a scientific or business minor.

That said, below are the majors that appeal most to people interested in writing.

Creative Writing

If you intend to be a fiction or poetry writer, this is the most obvious choice of major. It will get you grounded in the practice of creative writing and get you used to the process of getting your creative work reviewed, criticized, and edited. If there is a downside to this degree, it is that it trains you for very little besides creative writing. Making a living as a fiction writer is hard, and as a poetry writer it is much harder still. Pick this major if you are truly committed to that path, and that path only.

Journalism

This major is focused on writing for newspapers, magazines, broadcast news and new media. If the idea of being a journalist excites you, than this is a solid major.  Beyond writing skills, you will learn valuable research and editing skills. The downside to this degree is that journalism is an increasingly hard field to make a living in, so your job prospects aren’t dramatically better than those of a creative writing major.

English / English Literature

As an English major, you will study literature in-depth. There are far worse was to spend college than reading great literature. Teaching you how to write won’t be the primary focus, but reading literature does a great job of teaching you what to write about. This is not a major that leads to many job prospects straight out of college, but learning to read, write, and think critically is a skill that you can find handy in many professions.

Theater Arts

If you want to write plays, a theater arts major will give you a great all-around education in the stage. This major does not focus exclusively on writing, but a good playwright should know more about theater than just writing for it. In addition, there are  theater jobs besides writing and acting that may keep you afloat while you write. This is not a major that will give you a lot of career prospects straight out of college, but theater is very community oriented and good people generally find some work.

Media Arts

If you want to write for film, video, and new media this is an excellent major. When it comes to the creative mediums, film and television can be some of the most lucrative areas to write in. It is still not a major that will get you a lot of jobs right out of college, but the long-term prospects are good for people who stick with it through the first few years.

Liberal Arts

Majoring in liberal arts gives you a broad overview of many subjects such as languages, philosophy, literature, humanities, history and of course, writing. It won’t make you an expert in any one thing, but it will give you plenty of things to think about and write about. It won’t lead to a lot of jobs right out of college.

Linguistics

Linguistics is a far more technical approach to language than creative writing or English literature.  It isn’t a common choice for aspiring writers, but it does offer many advantages. It is an in-depth study of the way we put words and thoughts together and how we communicate as a species. Good linguists have reasonable job prospects, and most undergrads go on to get a graduate degree before entering the job market.

Communications

A communication major studies interaction between people, from face to face encounters all the way to broadcast and social media.
This choice is more common for public relations and marketing writers than it is for creative writers. It provides you with some job prospects, but many people still find it a challenge to get work out of college.

Marketing

A major in marketing will give you the foundations for copywriting and promotion, which is one of the more lucrative careers for writers. Marketing is an excellent minor for people who decide to major in creative writing or literature. Marketing is a competitive but profitable field with solid job prospects straight out of college.

Technical Communications / Writing

Technical Communications (or Technical Writing) is a major that has increased in popularity over the past fifteen years. The major focuses on researching and communicating complex topics, both through text and visual communication. Technical communication is one of the best paying career paths for writers, but it provides a much different skill set than creative writing.

Dialogue (Dialog) Exercises for Writers

Dialogue is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to master. There are many pitfalls to avoid.

Stilted Language

This is dialogue that does not sound like natural speech.

Filler Dialogue

This is dialogue that does not advance the scene or your understanding of the characters.

Expository Dialogue

This is dialogue in which the character explains the plot. It can also be dialogue in which the character repeats information for the benefit of the audience.

Naming

This occurs when one character uses another character’s name to establish identity. People rarely say another person’s name back to them. It is the character trait of a stereotypical used car salesman.

Overuse of Modifiers

This is the overuse dialogue modifiers such as shouted, exclaimed, cried, whispered, stammered, opined, insinuated, or hedged. Modifiers such as these can be useful is small doses, but don’t rely on them to convey your character’s moods or thoughts. Use the word “said” unless you have a good reason not to.

Exercises

  1. Write down the things you say over the course of the day. Examine your speech patterns. You don’t have to get every word. You may find that you say less than you think. Many people speak in short statements. You might find you rarely speak in complete sentences.
  2. Find a crowded place such as a restaurant, a bar, or a shopping mall. Write down snippets of the conversations you hear. Avoid trying to record whole conversations. Follow along for a brief exchange and then listen for your next target.
  3. Test responses to the same question. Think of a question that will require at least a little thought. Ask it of several different people. Compare their responses. Focused on their words. Write them down as soon as you can.
  4. Record several different TV shows. Some choices include: sitcom, news, drama, talk show, infomercial, sporting event, etc. Write a transcript using just the dialogue and people’s names. If you don’t know the names, just use a description such as announcer or redheaded woman. You can also transcribe two shows of the same genre. Use one show you like and one you dislike. Compare dialogue between fiction and non-fiction shows. Look for such things as greetings, descriptions of physical actions, complete sentences and slang. Look for verbal ticks such as like, you know, uhhhh, well, etc. Compare how these dialogue crutches change according to the show format and quality.
  5. Rewrite one or more of the shows in exercise 4 as prose. Try to recreate the show as accurately as possible. Note how easy or difficult it is to work in the entire dialogue from the show. Does it seem to flow naturally and read well? Does it get in your way? Rewrite it, eliminating any dialogue you feel is unnecessary. Try not to change dialogue until your final draft. Work with what you have. You don’t have to rewrite the whole show. Do enough to be sure you have the feeling for it.
  6. Rewrite one of the the transcripts from exercise 4 using as much of the dialogue as possible, but changing the scene. Change the setting. Change the people’s intent. Change the tone. Observe how easy or difficult it is to give the same words a different intent.
  7. Write the dialogue for a scene without using any modifiers. Just separate each statement by line. Write down the conversation as it flows. After you complete the dialogue, add narrative description. Don’t add dialogue tags such as “said”, “shouted” or “ordered”. Instead, work the dialogue into the action as a logical progression of the statements. Finally, add any dialogue tags that are absolutely necessary. Keep them simple such as said, told, or asked. Again, only put them in if you cannot find other options. Compare this to the previous dialogue you have written. See what you like or dislike about the changes.
  8. Write a scene in which one person tells another person a story. Write it as a dialogue, not just a first person narrative. Clearly have one person telling the story and the other person listenin. The second person should ask questions or make comments. The first goal of this scene is to have the story stand alone as a subject. The second goal is to have the characters’ reactions to the story be the focal point of the scene.
  9. Write a scene in which one person is listening to two other people have an argument or discussion. For example, a child listening to her parents argue about money. Have the third character narrate the argument and explain what is going on, but have the other two provide the entire dialogue. It is not necessary to have the narrator understand the argument completely. Miscommunication is a major aspect of dialogue.
  10. Write a conversation between two liars. Give everything they say a double or triple meaning. Never state or indicate through outside description that these two people are lying. Let the reader figure it out. Don’t be obvious. Don’t let one character accuse the other of lying. That is too easy.
  11. Write a conversation in which no character speaks more than three words per line of dialogue. Again, avoid crutches such as explaining everything they say through narration. Use your narration to enhance the scene. Don’t use it to explain the dialogue.
  12. Write a narrative or scripted scene in which several characters are taking an active role in the conversation. This can be a difficult aspect of dialogue to master. The reader must be able to keep track of the motivations and interests of all the characters. This can be especially difficult in prose. The time between one character speaking and the next is often interrupted by action or description. See how many characters your can sustain within the scene. It must still make sense and be engaging.

Formatting a short story for submission to a potential publisher

These are the guidelines for formatting a short story for submission to a possible publisher. As stated, these are guidelines and are not an absolute industry standard. There is no absolute standard. Different publications have different submission requirements. Always check the submission guidelines of any publication you submit to because they may vary from these guidelines in important ways. If the publication does not give conflicting information, however, fall back on these guidelines to get you through the process.

Paper

  • Paper should be white, unlined and 8.5 x 11 inches.
  • Outside of the United States and Canada, A4 size paper is used in many countries. If you live in one of those countries, you should already know this. If you are submitting to a foreign country, you need to check on the paper standards for that country.
  • Only use one side of the paper; do not print on both the front and back of pages.

Type

  • Use a standard, readable typeface/font. Times / Times Roman, Helvetica and Arial are typical fonts.
  • Font size should be at least 10 (point) at most 12 (point).
  • NEVER use a script style font.

Margins and Spacing

  • Leave a 1 inch margin on all sides of your manuscript.
  • Except when specifically instructed to do otherwise, double space your lines throughout the story.
  • Do not include extra space between paragraphs.
  • You are not required to indent the first line of each paragraph. If you choose to, you may indent the first line 1/2 inch from the left margin.

Page One

  • In the upper left-hand corner of the page, include the following information. It should appear flush left with each item of information on a separate line. This portion of your manuscript is the only portion that needs to be single-spaced.
    • Your name
    • Your mailing address
    • Your city, state or province, zip or postal code (and country if sending outside of your own country
    • Phone number(s)
  • In the upper right-hand corner of the page, flush right, include the approximate word count, rounded to the nearest hundred for stories under 10,000 words and to the nearest thousand for stories above 10,000 words.
  • In the exact center of your page (vertically and horizontally) type the title of your manuscript. You may use title case or all capital letters.
  • Two lines below your title, centered, include your byline. This is either your real name or a pseudonym.
  • Example: by John Hewitt
  • Begin the body of your manuscript (your story) four lines below your byline. This portion of your manuscript needs to be double spaced.

Pages other than page one

  • In the upper left or right side of each page include the page number and your last name. This should appear about four lines above your body text.

Things to avoid

  • Do not include your social security number
  • Do not type -30-, the end, or end at the conclusion of your manuscript. Just end it.
  • Do not staple or otherwise bind your manuscript. You may use a paperclip or a butterfly clamp to hold pages together.
  • Do not include information about rights, a copyright notice or any other personal details on your manuscript. If you must discuss these, do so in a cover letter

How to Express Yourself Through Writing

Most people who write poetry or fiction do so because they want to express themselves. Self-expression takes many forms, but poetry and fiction are two of the purest forms. What you write will always be an expression of your inner self. Still, expression is not always a simple task. Anyone who has sat down to write knows how hard it is to find the words to say exactly what they want to say. What comes out is often close to a person’s feelings, but rarely seems to express them perfectly.

Below are the four barriers to self-expression that come up most frequently. If you want to write what you feel, you must learn to overcome them.

Poor Grammar Hurts Self Expression

Learning and practicing the basic rules of grammar and style is a key to self-expression. When you know and accept the rules of a language, those rules become tools instead of barriers. William Strunk’s excellent guide to grammar can be found free on the web at: http://www.bartleby.com/141/. This is an older, public domain version of the book The Elements of Style. This book is about as concise and inexpensive a guide to grammar as you can find. Buy it, read it, learn it, live it. There are many more guides, most of them more detailed and explanatory. I have at least a half a dozen different grammar guides, but as the occasional email points out, I still make mistakes.

Poor Vocabulary Hurts Self Expression

The second barrier to self-expression is vocabulary. I do not mean that you need to know hundreds of four-syllable words in order to express yourself, but knowing the right word to express your thought is an essential element of good writing. Most people think a thesaurus is a good way to build their vocabulary, but frequently a thesaurus can lead you down the wrong path. Just because two words have similar meanings does not mean they have identical meanings. It is far more important to read a dictionary than a thesaurus. Look up words, even words you think you know, and pay attention to the definitions. An excellent dictionary to buy is The American Heritage Dictionary. I am not a big fan of Webster’s Dictionaries; most of their definitions seem incomplete to me. The king of all English language dictionaries is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It is the most in-depth and comprehensive dictionary in the history of man. The OED is almost as expensive as it is extensive, so visit your local library if you cannot afford a copy.

A Lack of Honesty Hurts Self Expression

While the first two barriers to self-expression are technical, the third is psychological. Self-expression requires a level of honesty and fearlessness that most people do not possess. To begin with, you need to know what your feelings are. This requires taking the time to look at yourself and to try to understand why you do things. Once you know what your feelings are, you need to be brave enough to put them on paper. Some people never achieve that level of honesty. One way to work on breaking down barriers is to try automatic writing. Sit down with a notebook or your computer and write whatever comes to mind, as quickly as possible. Do not edit yourself and do not try to control what goes onto the paper. You can do this for increments of five to ten minutes or longer. Personally, I find that I don’t get a good automatic flow going until I’ve been at it for over fifteen minutes.

A Lack of Effort Hurts Self Expression

Writing well requires hard work. There is no easy way around this. The more frequently you write and edit, the better you will get at it. Most professionals spend hours a day writing. If your goal is to become adept at expressing yourself, especially through poetry or fiction, you need to understand that you won’t automatically be perfect at it. Even after years of practice, not everything you write will be worth reading. The key is to keep writing. When you have significant writing experience, you can plow though the dry times and take greater advantage of inspiration when it comes.

One of the most inspirational books I have ever read about writing is If You Want to Write by the late Brenda Ueland. When I read her book, it usually takes only a couple of paragraphs before I feel like writing again.